Making the Desert Bloom, Again

A comprehensive process is needed to turn the south into a vibrant and attractive prospect in terms of health, education, housing and infrastructure. All of Israel will benefit.

Sami Peretz
Sami Peretz
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Sami Peretz
Sami Peretz

A politician disappointed by Shimon Peres once said that Peres is "only concerned with his new friends, because he already has his old ones."

This idea applies to the south of Israel as well. The Negev covers around 60 percent of Israel's territory and contains its most significant land reserves, but despite this, it has been neglected in recent decades. Priorities have been focused on the West Bank – where the vast settlement enterprise has been built with an investment of hundreds of millions of shekels – and also a little on the Galilee in the project nicknamed "Judaization of the Galilee" in the 70s.

And the Negev? The Negev is like Peres' disappointed friend: we already have it, so why bother?

Since the establishment of the nuclear reactor in Dimona, the state has not made an effort to cultivate the Negev and make it stronger, either economically or socially. Although incentives were occasionally given here and there in the form of tax breaks and investment grants, we haven't seen the Negev strengthen and develop in the way one would expect from an area with so much potential.

This week, residents of the center of the country got a taste of the all-too familiar routine of their southern counterparts over the last few years: sirens, Code Red alerts, sitting in bomb shelters, and rockets, Grads and Fajrs. Suddenly the rocket problem became a headache for those in Tel Aviv and Gush Dan too.

The experience could produce two opposing results: First, the state will understand the reality its citizens in the south face and will act to remedy the situation there. Second, the rocket problem will no longer be seen as the exclusive problem for residents of the south, and the neglect of this vast area of land will continue. The results of this neglect are seen everywhere: in the levels of healthcare, education, employment, and in its infrastructure. The salary in the south is lower than in the center of the country, the morbidity and mortality rate of infants is higher, and the educational achievements are lower.

Before we examine what we can do for the south, we need to ask whether we should even place it as a top national priority. For if Israel's citizens prefer to crowd into the area between Rishon Letzion and Netanya, why does the state have to push and direct them towards more remote areas?

The arguments in favor of strengthening the south are many and varied: Israel's population is mostly concentrated in the largest cities in its crowded central region, and the high birthrate necessitates some sort of distribution. This is true from a real-estate and infrastructure standpoint and also from a security standpoint. The concentration of most of the population and the majority of business activity in the metropolitan Tel Aviv area creates a large risk that life here will be completely disrupted in the event of a large security incident or natural disaster such as an earthquake. Therefore, it is vital to develop Be'er Sheva as a strong, significant metropolis in the south.

Even if we don't succeed in attracting a new population to the south, it is clear that an improvement in its level of public services is necessary – and not just from a social-justice standpoint. There is a significant gap between the different regions of the country, both in living standards and wages as well as in the level of public service. Reducing the social gaps that have developed in Israel over the past two decades necessitates treatment focusing on weak or weakened areas. This cannot be done by relying upon any single component, such as low or subsidized land prices. Such a focused approach only creates economic distortions and opens the door to manipulation. The right method is to formulate multi-systemic solutions in employment, education, culture and health.

Currently, there are several initiatives designed to strengthen the Negev and the periphery, but some are problematic, and it is difficult to assess their impact. The big central initiative is the establishment of a huge military training base and the transference of IDF bases to the Negev. This is a huge project that will be spread out over several years, worth tens of billions of shekels. In the Negev they expect that founding such a base will result in the migration of members of the affluent sector of society from the center to the south, but they are also afraid this will be a missed opportunity.

Paradoxically, the development of transport infrastructure can prevent the transition of career soldiers to the Negev, since shortening the distance to the center by building highways and railways can create a situation where residents of Gush Dan prefer to commute each day to the south, rather than uproot their families. This doesn't mean that we shouldn't be building roads; rather that a comprehensive process is needed to turn the south into an attractive prospect in other ways as well, such as improvements in health, education, housing, and occupational diversity for the spouses of career soldiers.

Another initiative underway is the establishment of ten new communities for the Bedouin population between Arad and Meitar, designed to stop that population from spreading. The problem of the dispersion of the Bedouin is a complex one which requires immediate solutions but establishing small new communities will create another problem – separation between the affluent community and the working-class community in the Negev. Already we see today how residents of more affluent communities of Omer, Lehavim and Meitar left behind the older, less affluent communities of Be'er Sheva, Dimona and Arad. This migration has weakened the former cities and perpetuates their neglect. A look at the table of income by locality clearly shows this: The average monthly wage in Omer is NIS 13,504, compared to NIS 6,294 in Be'er Sheva and NIS 4,811 in Ofakim.

The head of the Be'er Sheva municipality, Rubik Danielovitch, has set the target of raising Be'er Sheva's national socio-economic rating by two levels. But the establishment of new communities that attract Be'er Sheva's more affluent residents away from the city will not only prevent him from reaching this goal, but will likely actually harm the city's rating. In the absence of affluent residents, there won’t be anyone to demand – and work towards – the improvement of the city's services.

To solve these inequalities, the Negev requires a comprehensive plan, one that will also take the Bedouin question into account, including its high birthrates (the Bedouin currently number around 200,000, and this number will double in 15 years). Partial or issue-specific solutions, especially those that only try to address one problem, will consign the Negev to a destiny of being continually overlooked, and prevent it from becoming the strong and prosperous metropolis that all of Israel needs it to be.

'Making the desert bloom' was once a national rallying cry. Adopting the idea again today will benefit the entire country.Credit: AP

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